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Friday, May 27, 2022

LEXINGTON, Ky. - On a day fit for a snowball fight, Kentucky buried the Gators 75-70, and likely ended any chance UF had to receive an at-large bid for this year's NCAA Tournament.

With temperatures dipping below freezing on the outside and several inches of snow carpeting the ground, the Wildcats burned the nets, and sent a packed Rupp Arena home happy on senior night.

Kentucky shot a torrid 58.3 percent from the floor and hit 10 shots from beyond the arc.

The Wildcats honored guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, who combined to score 30 points.

The two gathered at center court following the contest and thanked a white-out crowd of 24,257.

"I've been proud in my life," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "But I'm more proud, right now, than I've ever been."

The game pitted two bubble teams in an unlikely season finale. With a 12-4 conference record, Kentucky probably locked up a spot in this year's March Madness.

UF, on the other hand, will be fighting for their lives in next weekend's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta.

After the game, center Marreese Speights, who scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, sat with his head in his hands as he focused on the ground.

"For them, luck came to play tonight," Speights said.

The Wildcats hit several 3-pointers as the clock expired, including one by Derrick Japser that banked off the backboard as he nearly fell over. The shot came after another bank by Bradley moments before.

"That was something we had no control over," UF coach Billy Donovan said.

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Donovan thought his team played well in the hostile environment, but like many games this season, failed to finish the way they started.

As the emotional night began, the Gators silenced the cheer-hungry crowd, connecting on nine of their first 11 shots and taking a 21-12 lead in the early going.

The Gators then went cold and missed their next five, allowing Kentucky to reel off an 11-0 run and tie the score before taking the lead 24-23 moments later when Perry Stevenson converted an and-1.

Kentucky grabbed the momentum and stormed out to a 32-26 advantage. The Wildcats, with UF guard Nick Calathes and Speights sidelined due to foul woes, had an opportunity to bury the Gators before the break.

However, the Gators hung tough and mounted a quasi-run to head into the half trailing by just 2 at 33-31.

UF began the second half shaky, and Kentucky had trouble missing.

The Wildcats hit seven 3-pointers in the period, and left the Gators reeling for most of the half.

UF wouldn't quit, and as the doors began to fall off, the Gators dug deep and found a side they've seldom shown.

UF's defense came alive and helped fuel one final and furious run.

Trailing 70-57 in a contest with all the workings of a blowout, UF scored 9 straight to cut the lead to 4 at 70-66.

Kentucky froze from the charity stripe and allowed UF to remain within striking distance down the stretch.

Two missed shots from the line by Jasper led to a tough basket by UF guard Jai Lucas to pull within 3 with 23 seconds left.

UF's pressure forced Kentucky to call two timeouts as the Wildcats attempted to inbound the ball. They finally secured the pass, and the Gators were forced to foul.

Stevenson hit two big free throws with 9.6 seconds left, and UF failed to get a good look.

The game was over, and UF's chances now rest on the future.

"We're going to take it one game at time," Speights said. "We have to come together. There isn't much time, but that's what we have to do."

Calathes scored 16 points and dished six assists, while Lucas added 13 points.

Kentucky's Stevenson led the way with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Donovan hopes the loss will help his team focus as they make their final run toward the postseason.

"At least we know what we need to get better at," he said.

If UF fails to reach the tournament, it will end a streak of nine consecutive trips that define a decade marked by three Final Fours and two national championships.

Now, the next span will likely turn over similar to how the last one started, with a NIT appearance.

"I can't say this meets my expectations," Lucas said. "We thought we could compete and win every night."

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